On Hangovers: Causes, Prevention, and Cures
Given the prevalence of the hangover in past as well as present popular culture, it may come as a surprise to some that the chemical causes of a hangover are not well understood. Plenty of theories abound, from dehydration to vitamin/electrolyte deficiencies to tiny demons in our skulls that use alcohol as fuel to dig their way out with minute picks and hammers. Ultimately, we don’t know, and frankly there’s a high likelihood that, much as people metabolize alcohol differently, hangovers stem from combinations of causes that vary between bodies. This would explain the lack of a universal panacea, as well as why your friend’s guaranteed cure doesn’t do a thing for you.
If you’ll pardon the Rebel Bartender getting on her “moderation” horse again, there is, in fact, one universal preventative for the hangover: don’t drink to excess. Admittedly, “to excess” falls within that grey area that differs greatly between individuals, but the biggest part of responsible drinking is knowing one’s limits. And if you absolutely must stretch those limits, there are several effective ways to mitigate (or altogether prevent) hangovers:
Don’t binge, and drink fluids. If you’re planning on drinking throughout a night, space out the cocktails with water – or even better, fruit juice or a sports drink. These help replenish glucose supplies, which are simultaneously used to power the brain and to metabolize alcohol. One of the theorized causes of hangovers is the overuse of glucose stores for metabolization and the subsequent shortage of it to fuel the brain, thus leading to symptoms such as fatigue and difficulty concentrating. (Additionally, if your friends lambast you for not drinking enough, you can just tell them your glass of orange juice is a screwdriver. But if that’s the case, the Bartender recommends using your unimpaired abilities the next morning to go in search of better friends.) A glass of something electrolyte-heavy just before bed is also helpful.
Eat before you start drinking. Not just a snack, but a real, full meal – food in the stomach helps keep your body from absorbing alcohol too quickly, which in turn helps keep your system from becoming overloaded, as well as providing nutrients that may be tougher to take in while impaired.
Stick to vodka or gin. Distilled alcohol has been shown to be significantly less painful the next morning than wines and liqueurs, with white spirits edging out brown (e.g. whiskey, dark rum) by a notable margin. The mechanism behind this is also not well understood, but is thought to be a result of fewer impurities in the more distilled spirits. Sugary drinks and champagne (hello, post-Valentine’s hangover!) are well-known to cause particularly toxic hangovers.
Volunteer to drive. That is, don’t drink, or limit yourself to one for the night. There’s no reason you can’t have a good time without alcohol, and it’s the only 100% guaranteed way to avoid a hangover – even the above steps will be defeated if you drink enough. People of East Asian descent (such as the Rebel Spouse) are especially advised to use this method, as they are genetically predisposed towards low alcohol tolerance and particularly violent hangovers.
All that said, we’re human and we sometimes don’t have the foresight that we really should. Even the Bartender has occasionally woken up wishing she had paid better attention to her own advice (although she’s never made it into the four- or five-alarm hangover category). Unfortunately for your head that morning, there’s no immediate cure, but these two steps are probably the most universally effective means of shortening a hangover’s hold on you:
Advil. This, preferably paired with a glass of one of the aforementioned glucose/electrolyte sources (the Bartender has had particular luck with Emergen-C) should be your step one – you can curl back down for a nap while it kicks in. (And if you can’t nap because of other commitments, then shame on you for choosing to drink to excess the night before.) Note that some people recommend taking it before going to sleep for the night, but that’s ineffective at best; your usual grocery-store painkillers only last about four to six hours, so by the time you wake up the effects will have passed. Also note that combining alcohol and acetaminophen (i.e. Tylenol) can have disastrous effects on your liver, which is why the Bartender recommends ibuprofen specifically.
Food. This is step two, designed for longer-term relief. It’s also quite possibly the more difficult one to implement – the last thing you feel like doing when hungover is attempting to cook, and chances are you’re in no state to be seen in a public place like a restaurant. But after the Advil nap, this is what’s most likely to get you up and moving around again; your body can’t restore your equilibrium without fuel. If you have an unaffected spouse or friend willing to cook for you, bask in your luck and make certain to thank them once the skull-demons calm down a bit.
Unsurprisingly, there are all kinds of other hangover cures, from commercially bottled drinks to home-brewed wow-wow juice. Some may be efficacious; some may work solely on the placebo effect (but if it works, it works). Some may be actively harmful – a little “hair of the dog” might help in the short term, but all it does is put off the reckoning for later and simultaneously court addiction. As with many other alcohol-related questions, the answer really boils down to this: Use your good sense, and do your research before you become impaired.
Got a new and different hangover cure you’d like the Rebel Bartender to write about? Send it in.